July 1994

Workplace Labor Update - County is Not Required to Accommodate Asthmatic Firefighter – July 1994

2 min

In April, the federal district court in Maryland decided the case of Huber v. Howard County, 3 A.D. Cases 262 (D.Md 1994). This case was filed by a former firefighter recruit, who suffers from asthma, alleging that Howard County unlawfully discriminated against him based on his handicap. In 1989, Huber applied for and was accepted as a firefighter recruit. At that time, Huber informed the department of his asthma condition. Despite this information, the county's doctor cleared Huber for training. During the training exercises Huber experienced great difficulty breathing. In fact, on more than one occasion, he had to discontinue the required 1.5 mile run. Huber was then seen by three additional doctors, all of whom opined that Huber could only perform the duties of a firefighter with the aid of medication and that his asthma posed an extreme safety risk for Huber and other firefighters. On March 12, 1990, Howard County informed Huber that his employment would be terminated due to his chronic physical condition. After his discharge, Huber filed suit against the county alleging that it had failed to accommodate his disability under the Rehabilitation Act. The county responded by stating that Huber did not have a disability as defined by the Act, and even if he did, it had not failed to reasonably accommodate him. In making the initial determination whether Huber qualified as a disabled person, the district court found that asthma impaired Huber's ability to breathe--a major life function. Next, the court had to determine whether Huber was an "otherwise qualified disabled individual," depending on whether he could perform the essential functions of the position. The court held that Huber was not able to perform the essential functions of a firefighter pointing to the fact that firefighters are required to work under extreme conditions and Huber's asthma prevented him from maintaining the stamina needed to perform the job. The court also noted that it would be unreasonable to allow Huber to use his inhaler at the scene of a fire considering the extreme temperature and the difficulty in using it with protective equipment. Any other accommodation would be an undue hardship. Although the court was impressed with Huber's sincere desire to serve his community, it could not require the county to make a sacrifice to employ him as a firefighter considering his inability to perform all the requirements of the job and the risks involved. Therefore, the court granted summary judgment for the county and dismissed Huber's claims.